Leeds Art Gallery: Meet Jane Bhoyroo - the woman behind one of Yorkshire’s brightest cultural gems

Leeds Art Gallery attracts diverse and exciting exhibitions. Yvette Huddleston goes for a stroll along the Headrow to meet its proud principal keeper, Jane Bhoyroo. Pictures by Tony Johnson.

With a very fine, much-admired permanent collection and a diverse programme of exciting temporary exhibitions, Leeds Art Gallery is one of Yorkshire’s brightest cultural gems, attracting visitors from far and wide.

For local people it is also a lovely city centre spot to pop in, away from the hustle and bustle, and spend a quiet half an hour or so with some beautiful artworks.

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Being surrounded by the gallery’s stunning paintings and sculpture is part of Principal Keeper Jane Bhoyroo’s daily experience – and it is something she never takes for granted.

Jane Bhoyroo, principal keeper, Leeds Art Gallery with Paula Rego's painting The Artist in her Studio, photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson.Jane Bhoyroo, principal keeper, Leeds Art Gallery with Paula Rego's painting The Artist in her Studio, photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson.
Jane Bhoyroo, principal keeper, Leeds Art Gallery with Paula Rego's painting The Artist in her Studio, photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson.

“It really is the best job, I knew how much I wanted it when it came up,” she says. “And it is such a privilege to be doing it.”

Appointed to the post in April 2022, Bhoyroo already had a long-standing connection with the gallery having previously worked there as an exhibition curator, programming contemporary art shows, and alongside the team when she was a producer with the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, a partnership between Leeds Art Gallery, the Henry Moore Institute, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Hepworth Wakefield.

In 2019 she worked closely with Sarah Brown, the former Principal Keeper, on Yorkshire Sculpture International, a hugely successful sculpture-dedicated festival, the largest of its kind in the UK, which brought world-class art to Leeds and Wakefield.

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“That project was a turning point for all the galleries involved, in terms of realising that we can achieve so much working together,” says Bhoyroo.

Leeds Art Gallery photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony JohnsonLeeds Art Gallery photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson
Leeds Art Gallery photographed for the Yorkshire Post by Tony Johnson

“We also made a commitment to develop artists in West Yorkshire and to establish a sculpture network.”

For the festival, Bhoyroo led on bringing art into the public realm. A personal highlight was securing a number of large-scale Damien Hirst sculptures to display outdoors at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and in Leeds city centre.

“I remember installing a Hirst sculpture called Hymn on Briggate in the middle of the night,” she says. “It was great – we had an audience of people coming out of late-night bars watching us.”

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Bhoyroo is responsible for the organisational and artistic leadership of the gallery, taking care of the impressive historic building, which dates back to 1888 and underwent a significant £4m refurbishment in 2016/7, and ensuring that the collection continues to grow.

The gallery is known for the strength of its Modern British Art from the 19th century up to the present day, and new works are being added to the collection all the time with support from organisations such as the Contemporary Arts Society and Leeds Art Fund.

“My role is so varied,” says Bhoyroo.

“I work closely with the front of house team, our curators and our colleagues in engagement. I have a really collaborative practice and a wonderful team. Many of the people who work at the gallery have been here for a very long time, some of them for over 20 years, and I think that demonstrates the love that they have for this place and their commitment to it. And I am still learning from them – they have such enormous knowledge and passion which I really appreciate in helping me build a picture.

“I lead on exhibitions and programmes and day to day operations which includes the lovely Tiled Hall café and our shop, enabling people to support the gallery by getting a coffee or buying something from the shop. It’s really important to us to keep entrance to the exhibitions free.”

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The gallery’s community and outreach work includes The Care Creatives – a weekly programme designed for young adults aged 16-24 who have lived experience of the care system; Youth Collective which offers monthly meet-ups for young people aged 14-21 to make friends and explore their creative side; and the Picture Library, a lending scheme which allows people to choose an original artwork to take away and hang up at home. Plus, regular free workshops, family events, talks and lectures.

“Our work with local communities is really important to us,” says Bhoyroo. “We are a place for everyone to experience art and to be creative. I am aware of our civic responsibilities; we want to create a welcoming environment for our visitors. And we love working with other local partners – like Yorkshire Dance, Chapeltown Arts, Opera North, Harewood House and the Geraldine Connor Foundation. Leeds 2023 have been a great partner to work with too – it has enabled us to do some more international-facing projects, raising our profile and developing new relationships.”

Bhoyroo clearly loves her work, her enthusiasm and passion for what she does is obvious, especially when we discuss some of her favourite works in the Leeds collection. The first one she mentions is Paula Rego’s Artist in her Studio, 1993.

“It is a really important work to us in the gallery and was purchased through the Art Fund. Why I am drawn to it is that it’s this figure of a female artist – Rego showing awareness of her role as a female artist. It is like a self-portrait but it also gives us an insight into how she makes her work in her studio and also references her Portuguese heritage. There are so many stories in there, I could spend hours looking at it. It remains mysterious and it is amazing to have this work. I think Leeds Art Gallery was so forward-thinking in acquiring it.”

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Another work which speaks to her is a 1950 painting by Francis Bacon.

“Like the Paula Rego piece it is also quite enigmatic. But this was made before Bacon was really famous – it was acquired by the gallery in 1951 only a year after it was painted.”

Demonstrating more forward thinking from the gallery at the time. Hepworth’s elegant 1953 sculpture Hyroglyph, which the artist generously gifted to the gallery, is another of Bhoyroo’s favourites, as is Phyllida Barlow’s Venice Biennale piece Untitled Venice Columns.

“I love Barlow’s use of everyday materials,” she says.

“It’s very inspiring and is such a visceral work – it demands to be walked around. We also own her work Rig in partnership with the Hepworth Wakefield. We are well known for our sculpture collection too and are a centre for sculpture together with the Henry Moore Institute; I’m looking forward to doing more work in partnership with them.”

Bhoyroo’s interest in art started early.

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“I grew up in London and used to go to exhibitions all the time, then studied art history for A level.”

She went on to study Art History at Newcastle University as part of her degree, followed by a Masters in the History of Modern British Art at the Courtauld Institute and an International Curatorial Training Programme in Amsterdam.

“I love working with contemporary artists,” she says. “That is one of the best things about my job – collaborating with them on making their ideas a reality.” She also worked for Arts Council England for six years, was a sculptor curator for the Arts Council Collection and led Sheffield’s S1Artspace as director for a while.

“I moved to Leeds 12 years ago and I love it, it’s a brilliant city,” she says. “I feel that everything I have done in my career to date makes sense and has led to me ending up here in this role.”

The current exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery, Sonia Boyce: Feeling Her Way, runs until November 5. Free entry. Details museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/leeds-art-gallery